12 Steps to Competitive Songwriting


This "Coaching" section is geared primarily to the Country Market, however, any songwriter might benefit from some of the information in the 12 Steps To Competitive Songwriting.

First, the good news.

Music Row, Nashville, the New Country Market, or whatever else you want to call it, is the largest, most vital, most stimulating market for pure songwriters in the world. Although many artists write and co-write all the time, and, as in all businesses, politics do play a role, the simple fact is:


A great song will always stand out. A great song will open any door in town.

The bad news?

It’s not so easy to write a great song.

Quick, back to the good news. You can write a great song. But it takes talent, time, effort, and the will to never stop learning. You also have to learn to not only endure rejections, but actually welcome them as the great opportunities they can sometimes be. More about that later.

Okay, songs (great songs) are King in Nashville. Then why, you might ask, are there so many mediocre songs on the radio? Well, just because a known artist co-writes a so-so song and then makes a great recording and has a hit, doesn't mean anything as far as the new writer is concerned. To compete with all the artists and the signed writers who are cranking out good song after good song for their publishers, you must write a great song, indeed quite a few great songs. Also, great Country songs are deceptively simple. Listen again to that song that you can’t believe made it to the radio, it may be a lot better than you think. You may not like it, but it still could be a great song. And, as I mentioned, certain artists are so big they can get a less-than-great song cut (often one they co-wrote) and make it into a hit.

Again, what does this mean to you? Nothing. Artists are co-writing all the time. Publishers have rosters of pro-writers who crank out three, five, ten songs a week, week in, week out. The publishers who pay them a weekly draw will give their songs priority over what you send in the mail. They'd be crazy not to. The songs you send must stand out above all the others’ songs. They must not only be competitive, they must be obviously great songs.

So how do you write a great song? The answer to that is simple. I don’t know. I don't think anyone really does. But you can prepare yourself to recognize one when it sneaks up and bites you. It’s a little like fishing. You don’t become a great fisherman by learning how to catch fish, you become a great fisherman by learning to properly prepare yourself, your equipment, your skills, etc. so that you can be in a position where fish can be caught. Likewise, you don’t become a great songwriter by learning how to write great songs, you do it by learning how to write competitive songs. If the song isn't competitive, you’ll gain very little by playing it for a Publisher. If the song isn’t competitive, it can never be great. Pro writers crank out five songs a week, twenty a month, two hundred and forty songs a year hoping that a few will be turn out to be great. All the songs are well-crafted, but once in a while, an idea comes along like a gift from the gods, and boy, are they ready to reel it in. Or think of baseball. The best of the best fail to come up with a decent hit seventy percent of the time! But they hang in there, waiting for that sweet pitch they can send sailing out over the cheap seats.

You’ve also got to be willing to write bad songs. Writer’s block is simply fear of writing badly. Always finish a song. It’s better to write bad songs (although hopefully each one better than the last) than not to write at all. The day you’re too tired to fish may be the day the big one is just waiting for you to drop your hook! Okay, so what exactly is a competitive song? In general (and in brief) it’s a song that has:

1. A fresh title, a fresh concept, or a fresh take on an old concept, or phrase.

2. A solid "modern" construction complete with, ideally, a ten-second intro with a catchy lick; one verse which uses specific, fresh images to grab and draw in the listener; a chorus which goes up musically and which mentions the title as many times as you can get away with; a second verse which doesn't just repeat the first but develops the story somehow; the exact same chorus (although ideally seen in a different light because of the development of the second verse), maybe a bridge which is half the length of a verse and changes the perspective slightly and leads us back into the chorus again (of course, there are many different song forms, but this is the main type they are looking for).

3. The song is true, real, and easily related to. The listener has to say... "Yeah, I've felt that before"; "Yeah, that’s happened to me"; "Why didn't I think of that?"

4. It must have the overall impression of not having been "written" and sweated over, not sounding too "artistic" or clever. It should sound conversational.

5. No matter how simple musically, it must have at least one surprising and fresh musical moment.

6. The demo must be sung by a good singer, and it has to have been produced enough to get the feeling of the song without burying the lyrics and melody in an overblown, unnecessary production.

If it has all these elements, which are, for the most part, pure craft and can be learned, then at least it’s "competitive". The art comes in when the song contains that special spark, or theme, or whatever, which turns it into a "great" song. That's the subjective part of the whole thing, the mystery, the thing that makes it all worth while.

The 12 Steps To Competitive Songwriting are brief. You shouldn’t be spending all your time reading about how to write songs. You should be spending your time writing songs, practicing your instrument, reading poetry and other stimulating books, and most of all… living. These are a set of guidelines that I wish I had found when I first started out trying to crack the Nashville music scene. They will get right to the nitty gritty, and you can easily check your songs and ideas against them.

So many rules. Where’s the creativity? Even Picasso started off painting conventional scenes before he threw away the rules and created a whole new world of art. I suggest you look at it the same way. Learn the rules. Follow the rules. Lean on the rules. Then, bend them, even hurt them a little if it suits you, but only at your own risk.


Follow these steps as you write your song, or use them to check that the song you’ve already written is truly competitive.



Where does a song idea come from? In most cases a song idea will come from a title or a line, perhaps something overheard, or read, or found by transposing a word in a familiar phrase, i.e. "Re-fried Dreams", "Better Love Next Time", "Barney Jeckyl and Bubba Hyde", "This Is Your Brain On Love". Or perhaps a new angle on a phrase which, by itself, it not particularly interesting, i.e. "I Swear", "Lonely Too Long", "Worlds Apart". Or even a straight-out cliché. The only problem with using clichés is that you can be sure that for every cliché you can come up with, there are hundreds of songs out there with the same title, many of them written by the best tunesmiths in Music City. So if you’re going to use a cliché, make sure you have a thoroughly unique approach or fresh twist to make your song stand out.


What is your song about? Does it represent a value that you truly believe in? Is it a value that is Politically Correct (remember, we’re talking about top-ten New Country hits here)? Listen to all the songs out there. Certain themes keep repeating themselves. If you have a woman, you’d better say she’s pretty darned wonderful. If you’ve just lost a woman, or had a fight, you better realize it was all your fault (or make the song so devastatingly sad that people will want to hear it just so they can have a cathartic crying session ["He Stopped Loving Her Today"]). If you’re a woman and you've just lost your man (in the song, that is), you’d better realize that you can make it on your own. These themes may seem limited, but they make up the majority of songs on the radio. Remember, no Country artist is going to sing a song that puts a woman or themself in a bad light.

Also remember; no current Country artist, male or female, is over the age of "thirty," so if you’re going to be singing about offspring, they’d better be babies or toddlers at most. Or perhaps, it would be best sung by the son or daughter about his or her father or mother. Ask yourself, would an artist want his fans to believe that he is singing about himself/herself? Would an artist want to sing this song as a representation of his or her own beliefs?

Truth Or Consequences

The great songwriter Harlan Howard described Country music as "three chords and the truth." It may be more than three chords now, but it still has to be true. Can ordinary (but intelligent) people relate to it? Would someone really do that, think that? Would someone say that? Can people relate? Will they hear your song and think: "Yeah, that's happened to me", or "I've been though that many times myself". Bing Crosby used to say that the reason for his great success was simple: deep in their hearts, every man believed that he could sing like Bing Crosby. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth, but that's how he made people feel. It was his deceptively simple and laid-back style that people loved. The same goes for Country songs. They shouldn't sound "written", they should sound like true stories being passed on from one friend to another, from one generation to another.



Songs generally need three legs to get by. Two might not make it. Four is probably too many. These legs, or parts, are like three acts of a play.


When I play with a song idea, I submit it to a test to see if has "legs". I ask myself these questions: can I find three parts to the story, a beginning, middle, and end, so to speak? Or, at the very least, can I find two solid parts where the second part truly develops the story (and the chorus, the summing up of the idea, becomes the third lyrical part)? Unlike a lot of pop and rock music which can get by with a verse, chorus, and then a verse which basically repeats the first verse with different words, Country songs (or any great song for that matter) must offer something new in each section. The first verse sets the scene as specifically as possible, then the chorus hits, and the theme of the song is made universal with a broader statement. The second verse must then take us to a different level somehow; it must move the story ahead in time, or raise the stakes in some fashion.

This is usually enough, but if you feel you need a bridge, you must either: 1. Tell the end of the story. 2. Raise the stakes even higher or, 3. Slightly shift the focus and re-iterate what we have already learned but from a different perspective. Either way, the listener must either learn new information, or at least get a different, surprising perspective on the same information.

A lot of newer Country songs only have two verses with no bridge but the song must still have three legs musically.


To be interesting, a song must have three distinct musical parts. This can be verse, chorus, and bridge, or an intro, verse, chorus, or, in the case of AABA songs, the entire flow of the structure constitutes a third part.



You can brainstorm on paper (or in the Brainstorm/Mind Map section of LyricPro) by writing down every possible angle, phrase, or word which could possibly connect with your theme or title, and you can let the idea simmer in your subconscious by taking it as far as you can then letting the mysterious forces below the surface of your consciousness do the rest. I call that "background thinking", a little like when your computer background prints while your doing something else.

Use the Slant-Rhyme Dictionary to help compile your list of words. Have fun with a good Thesaurus.

If the song already exists, re-brainstorm it to make sure you haven’t missed anything obvious.



Ideally, a song should dictate its own structure, but most commercial songs are either ABABB, or ABABCB. If your song just plain wants to be AABA, then make sure that the overall musical structure of the song is elegant and well thought-out. The overall structure, in effect, becomes the third musical part.

Tempo, Tempo

If possible, make the song a medium or up-tempo number. Set your metronome to 120 and see what comes out. If it’s slow, make sure it has a pretty melody. There's nothing wrong with ballads, it's just that if a Publisher is looking for 10 songs, he'll be looking for 8 up-tempo numbers and 2 ballads.



Making the singer (I) and the audience (You) is the most identifiable POV for a commercial song. If, however, the hero of the song is politically incorrect, that is if he/she is over thirty, or a real sonufabitch who won’t mend his/her ways, then put it in the third person.



Musical Intro

The musical intro is the first thing anyone hears so it should serve two purposes. 1) It should set up the mood of the song. 2) It should contain a slight hook, which can be a variation of part of the melody from either the verse or the chorus. A publisher once told me that when he couldn't choose between two songs, he finally chose the one which had a melodic intro, as opposed to the other one which only had a couple of bars of single chord strumming.

First Line

Make it a good one. Throw us into the story right away. The best place to start any story or song is as close to the end as possible. Make it specific. Name names. Where are we? What’s the weather like? What is the guy/girl doing? Why should we care? The listener should have a good idea of what the song is going to be about (or at the very least be completely hooked on hanging in there and discovering what it is about) after the first line. Movies these days usually start out with a brief "whammo" scene to capture the audience's attention and your song should be the same. The first line is perhaps the most important line in the song (other than the line before the title) because, artistically, it sets up the mood and the tone of the story. In a more practical sense, publishers hear hundreds of songs a week and almost never listen all the way through. They will probably give your song until the end of the first chorus, but not necessarily. If it doesn't grab them right away, they won’t hesitate to reach for the off button. One little trick to get you going is to start with the opposite idea of the chorus. If the chorus is about black, tell us about white.

First Verse

Specific, specific, specific. Make it lean and mean. Get us the hell to the chorus so we can all go home earlier.

Ramp To Chorus

The last line of the verse should make the first line of the verse inevitable (not predictable). If you’re going to have a sub-section after the verse, a lift, or climb, or a channel, make it as short as possible, no more than half the length of the verse. Make sure it really sets up the chorus, otherwise it means you haven’t been economical enough in the verse.

Can You Be More Specific?

Make the verses as specific as possible. Use names, names of people, names of places, very specific situations. Have people talk to each other. Furnish your verses with images from real life. And then, when you hit the chorus, make it universal and more general in tone. Tell us what you’re going to say, say it, then tell us what you just said (by giving us fresh, new information).



Get to the chorus as quickly as possible. Ten second intro, one verse, and then whammo, hit ‘em with the hook, the chorus, no more than one minute into the song. Unless the melody is really inventive, start the chorus on a different chord than the verse starts on. Although choruses have been known to start on minor chords in some successful songs, it's generally not a good idea. Make sure the melody is higher in the chorus. It has to lift, it has to soar. Try to get the title in as many times as possible, in the first and last lines of the chorus if possible.



Don’t repeat the first verse with different words. Tell us something different. Move us up in time, or back in time for that matter ("The Song Remembers When"). Develop the story, but make sure you're only developing one theme. Songs should only be about one thing, tell us something new about that one thing, but don’t start telling us about something else entirely. When a listener hears your song, he/she will either like it or not, but it must be obvious what it's about. Show us the story from different angles, but the focus of the story, must stay the same. If the listener says, "I don’t get it.", "But what's the song about?", it’s not competitive and you're out of luck.

Note: some songs seem to jump all over the place such as "Worlds Apart" by Bob Dipiero and some guy name Vince something or other. But these writers are really sticking to one theme, how we impoverish out lives by thinking of ourselves as separate from others. The story of the song can cover a lot of ground, but the theme must stick to one thing and one thing only.

To Bridge Or Not To Bridge

Bridges are being used less and less. A bridge is only necessary if it really adds to the song lyrically. It’s okay to have a bridge if it’s not going to make the song more than three and a half minutes long, but make sure that the bridge is short, short, short. Half the length of the verse, or even a quarter the length of the verse. Take us right back to the chorus. Shift the POV somewhat. Show us the story from a slightly different angle. Don’t include an instrumental break unless it is absolutely necessary and doesn’t push the demo over three and half minutes

Musical Build

Ideally, the intro should be a nice little hook in itself, the verse should be simple, memorable, and easy on the ears, and the chorus should soar. The bridge only needs to be a respite so that we can get back to the chorus again (although Gary Burr says that when he writes a bridge, he thinks of it as being musically as a completely new chorus).



Is there any filler? Is every line, every word necessary? Is there enough real, fresh furniture in the song. If not, make is so.


Use words that reinforce the theme and subject matter of the song. If the song is about a stormy relationship and the title has the word storm in it, try to put in as many references to bad weather as you can. Show us the "good weather" part of the relationship so we see how much has been lost by the weather going "bad". This is just used as a simple example, as in this case, you’d have to go beyond the obvious references of rain and sun because they are clichés. Perhaps you tell us about dust-devils, or being in the eye of the hurricane, or the demon twister or whatever.

Sore Thumbs

Do any words or ideas stick out like sore thumbs? Does the word cockroach appear in a love song? Fix it. Are there places you just plain know are weak, but you're starting to get used to them and think no one will notice (or you’ll cough whenever that part of the CD plays)? Fix 'em.


Try to replace all clichés. No matter how appropriate, they will never help elevate your song into greatness.
STEP 10:


There must be at least one hook musically and lyrically. Obviously, the best place for the lyrical hook is in the title of the song and in the chorus. Make sure there’s a surprising musical hook as well. The intro should be a little hooky, too.

STEP 11:


For ballads, a simple guitar/vocal, or piano vocal is fine. The important thing is that you use a professional singer. For up-tempo songs, you will probably want to add drums and bass but it’s not a requirement. Don’t put in an instrumental just to pad the song. The producer can do that when he cuts the song for the next Dixie Chicks album (I mean, leave the poor guy something to do). The most important thing is to not waste money on demos until you are sure the song is as good as it can get and is truly competitive. Be brutally honest. Get professional feedback. Also, when your demos are mixed, always get a copy of the music tracks mix only (no vocal). This way, it will be easier and cheaper to make minor lyric changes further on down the line. Bottom line: don’t waste money on demos until you are sure that you have a competitive song (although if people really followed this advice, half the small studios in Nashville would go out of business and we don’t want that, so, on second thoughts, give them all the business you can afford).

STEP 12:


This is the hardest part for me, but you’ve got to get a list of as many Publishers as possible and start calling them. If you don’t already know the name of the Professional Manager ask the Secretary for the name, thank her, and hang up. Call back a few weeks latter and ask for the Professional Manager by name. Make your pitch, short and sweet, and figure that for every 10 people you call, maybe one will say, go ahead send it in. Send in your competitive song properly packaged (call the NSAI, 615-256-3354, and ask for their submissions guidelines) and make a follow-up call in a couple of weeks. When they tell you they never received the CD or can’t find it, just say, no problem, and send them another one. Never send in a CD unless it has a name attached to it (obviously yours, but also someone at the Publishing Company) and you called first for permission. You must separate yourself from the unwashed masses of songwriters who deluge Publishers all the time with non-competitive songs.

One thing you might want to do is to get the Publisher Special issue of Music Row Magazine (615-321-3617) which lists all the major Publishers along with contact names. A word of warning however. This does not list Publishers who are officially open to submissions, just the opposite. These Publishers have writing staffs who crank out great song after great song, week after week. However, anything is possible if you approach it in the right way and follow the above rules. And remember, if you get to speak to someone and they say they’re not looking for material for six months, or even a year, you have succeeded. Thank them, and hang up. In six months or whatever, call that person again, and tell him/her that he/she suggested you call at this time. In six months, you’ll be that much a better writer and your new songs will closer to being great.



Never marry your song. Be prepared to fix it if necessary. Recognize constructive feedback. Could it do with/without a bridge? If a publisher likes the song but suggests changes, try them. You can always go back to the way it was, and who knows... he/she may be right. Stranger things have happened.